The book jacket copy for the paperback edition of Holiday that I used applauds this novel’s subtlety and Middleton’s “artistry and depth of feeling.”
Holiday is a quiet story. Edwin Fisher, a university education professor, has recently left his wife, Meg, and, on a whim, goes for a weeklong holiday at the seaside resort where he vacationed with his family as a boy. The book nicely describes the events and rhythms of Fisher’s holiday. There are lots of brief if somehow meaningful conversations with strangers and alliances that form (and don’t form) with other vacationers, all interspersed with memories of Fisher’s childhood and his marriage.
Observing other couples in his inexpensive hotel at close hand, Fisher finds that their relationships, like his own, often belie first impressions and defy easy analysis. His initial feelings of superiority to his surroundings and the people around him give way as familiarity deepens. Something similar happens in his reconsideration of his own history. In revisiting the sites of childhood vacations, he is able to see his own father, to whom he has also felt superior, with greater sympathy. The result is a deeper understanding of the ways in which his relationship with his father has shaped his own identity.
Even as he tries to work out how he feels about his marriage, his discovery that his in-laws have turned up at the same resort, though in a pricier hotel, complicates this respite from his life. His father-in-law, successful Welsh lawyer David Vernon, steps in to engineer a reconciliation between himself and Meg. Vernon pushes Fisher to do more than simply ruminate on the past. Negotiating with both sides and reporting on his progress with his daughter, Vernon urges Fisher to go to Meg and talk out their problems, though she seems as reluctant as her husband to do so. Finally, Fisher’s mixed meditations on marriage and family get him round to confronting the question he has been at pains to avoid: Can his marriage to Meg survive the recent death of their two-year-old son?
Melancholy from start to finish, Holiday sneaks up on you. The cumulative effect of memory and running internal debate is powerful and moving. Fisher’s motives, as well as the motives of those around him, including Meg, are not always clear. Yet they always ring true. The novel presents no clear-cut solution to its central dilemma but nicely presents the vagaries and compromises of love and commitment. We discover along with Fisher that what makes relationships work is finally elusive, often incomprehensible to others and even to the parties involved.
Ultimately, I found Holiday quietly resonant and wholly memorable. It well deserved its share of the 1974 Booker Prize. I might even have argued for it as the stand-alone winner.